Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.

What the Bible really says about how to treat refugees

Recently a text written by Jesse Carey, in Relevant Magazine, supposedly about what the Bible says about immigrants, refugees and displaced people, has come to me. The text is a bit old (from November 17, 2015), but is being reheated because of President Trump’s recent decisions in this area. Given these things, here are some comments on “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees.”

Carey presents what he calls “12 verses about loving immigrants, refugees and displaced people”. The first thing to note is that none of the texts presented by Carey mentions the word refugees. The texts speak about foreigners, the poor and needy, travelers, strangers, and neighbors, but never about refugees. A refugee is a foreigner, but not every foreigner is a refugee. The same goes for stranger. Amazingly, refugee is also not synonymous with traveler. Every refugee is traveling (against his will, it is assumed), but not everyone who is traveling is a refugee. Finally, a refugee can be poor and needy, but poor and needy and refugee are also not synonymous. It seems that Carey has difficulty reading: when he sees words like foreigner or traveler or poor and needy or stranger his brain reads refugee. Either that or he’s being flagrantly dishonest.

The second observation is that, in the language used by Jesus, for the Christian every refugee is a neighbor. Not every refugee is poor and needy, not every foreigner is a refugee, nor does every stranger is a refugee and not every traveler is a refugee. But for the Christian, every human being is a neighbor, and so deserves his mercy. The problem is that Carey wants to apply this to immigration policies, and immigration policies are not made by Christian individuals, but by governments.

The history of the relationship between churches and governments is long, complex and tumultuous. To make a quick summary, suffice it to say that during the Middle Ages church leaders and political leaders fought and argued among themselves about who would dominate the people of Europe. The Bishop of Rome wanted to be above the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the local level, bishops and priests fought with nobles of all kinds. The result was a general confusion. One of the great victories of the Modern Era, beginning with the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates 500 years this year) was the separation of churches and state. Especially since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the tendency has been for states not to use their arms to impose a religion on the population. Carey wants to go the other way. He even cites 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 as if it applied to every human being, and not only to Christians.

The Bible teaches that individual Christians must care for needy people, and certainly refugees fall into this category. But the Bible does not teach that the state should do this. The role of the state, according to the Bible, is to carry the sword to punish wrongdoers and to benefit those who follow the law (the classic text regarding this is Romans 13). In other words, biblically the function of the state is restricted to security. Receiving immigrants is certainly a policy with which Christians can agree, but fully open borders, without any vigilance, are a delusion and nothing more. Wrongdoers can disguise themselves as immigrants to enter a country, and it is up to the state to do some kind of security check.

I am not discussing here the details of Trump’s current policy for immigrants and refugees. It is quite possible that there are aspects within it that Christians can or should disagree with. But by wanting to impose Christian behavior on the state, Carey goes against one of the greatest victories of the Modern Age, the separation of churches and state, something amazing for a liberal and progressive author. Does he approve of compulsory prayer in schools, the end of teaching Darwinism and punishment for those who do not attend Sunday worship? Hope not.

Roger Williams has already presented this discussion very clearly more than 300 years ago: Christians cannot impose their religion using the state for this. What can be expected Biblically from the state is in the second table of the law: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony … Basically, do not hurt others, do not lie to them and do not take their stuff without permission, things that any kindergarten child knows are wrong. I do not think we need the Bible to teach us that.

I hope that the state is open to immigration as much as possible, being restricted only by security concerns. I hope Christians will welcome the refugees. I hope the wall of separation between church and state is never overthrown. And I hope that the rulers of the United States will leave the Islamic world for the Islamists to take care of. They already have enough work taking care of the safety of Americans in North America.

Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”

Brandon asked me to leave some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”, By Matthew Fay, here. Edwin van de Haar already did that in his “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story”, but as I tend to follow a different path from van de Haar, I believe I may have something original to say here. So lets go.

First, unlike Edwin, I’m not going to go in the direction of discussing who is a libertarian, who is a conservative, who is a classical liberal, and so on. For one thing, I think that this kind of discussion is really boring (sorry Edwin, no offense intended, believe me). Other than that, it seems to me that discussing vocabulary is tremendously counterproductive. During the Cold War the US defined itself as a democracy. The USSR defined itself as a democracy as well. Both could meet and discuss who was really democratic, without any real gain. The same can be said about discussions within the socialist bloc: Chinese and Russians could discuss forever who was more Marxist, almost going to war because of that, without any real profit. Personally, I think I lost a lot of time some years ago discussing if Venezuela was democratic or not. And then they ran out of toilet paper. So I care not if communists want to call Venezuela a democratic state or not, the fact is that I don’t think any of them are willing to live without the simple but precious item of capitalist modern life.

With that said, if Matthew Fay wants to call his international relations perspective “libertarian,” so be it. But here are some commentaries from someone who usually calls himself libertarian:

“Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.”

I wouldn’t say that. First, I’m a libertarian who studies foreign policy more than anything else. Second, I don’t think that we should say that “The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.” That’s simply not a good phrase to use when talking about International Relations. Better to say that the state is very often regarded as the primary actor in International Relations theory, especially by theorists who identify themselves as Realists. Other theorists would say that individuals, or international institutions, or international organizations are as or more important than the states.

“For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.”

I identify as a libertarian and I don’t exactly “want the state to do less.” I want the state to do some things and not others. I know that many libertarians (specially people at the Mises Institute, following Murray Rothbard) understand that anarcho-capitalism is the natural and logical conclusion for libertarians. I’m still not convinced. For example, I would like the state to do a lot about prosecuting murders and nothing about what I put in my own body.

“identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs.”

That’s something that goes at least to Robert Jervis’ 1978 article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” but I openly disagree. If they are not invading your territory, then they’re not aggressors. They may be potential aggressors, or they may be aggressive, but they’re not aggressors. As an individual, I choose to carry a gun, or even better, to avoid certain neighborhoods. The states should, if possible, avoid certain neighborhoods. If that’s not possible, carry a gun. And definitely keep a gun at home and learn how to use it.

“even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to ‘regime change.’”

First, I don’t think that one can prove that US intervention is superior to anything, ever. It’s basically a broken window fallacy. And I don’t embrace any illiberal government. I just don’t think that it’s the US government’s job to overthrown them. Also, I don’t think any autocratic governments are primarily resisting imperialism.

“Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally.”

Realism in International Relations theory is in general attractive for me because it seems to reflect the reality. Among International Relations theorists, my personal favorites are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I believe they are very liberal (in the classical sense) at heart but, like me, they are very suspicious of states. By the way, I’m Brazilian and I don’t live in the States, so the second part makes no sense either. There are many libertarians outside the US, by the way, and I think it would be very interesting to check what they think about all this.

“Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure.”

I don’t think that. The American Revolution and the Puritan Revolution were great examples of regime change and nation building through the use of military force. They worked just fine. I just don’t believe that we can force this on other people.

“But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, ‘we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’’”

I’m not sure if “America’s post-World War II grand strategy have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world.” Again, it’s a matter of opportunity cost, or another broken window fallacy. I’m also unsure if “the result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals.” I have a really strong tendency to say it didn’t. The problem with theorizing in social sciences is that, unlike in natural sciences, you can’t take things to the laboratory and run consecutive tests. That is, by the way, one of the reasons why I reject positivism as a research methodology. I’m not sure if Matthew Fay embraces it, but the fact is that for me we are better with praxeology, or at least some version of methodological individualism. And with that in mind, we can’t be so bold to say that American foreign policy in the post-WWII Era was the main cause of peace and everything else. It just seems to me that without US intervention in WWI there would be no WWII (and no Russian Revolution, at least not a successful one, by the way). The Founding Fathers were right: Europe is a mess. The farthest you get from it, the best.

Joaquim Nabuco, a Brazilian visionary in Washington

During most of the 19th century Brazil and the United States showed little mutual interest. Brazilian foreign policy was initially directed to Europe (mainly England) and then to border problems in South America (particularly with Argentina and Paraguay). Meanwhile, the US was concerned about its expansion to the west and its internal tensions between north and south. With little convergence in these priorities, the two countries basically ignored each other.

However, this picture began to change at the end of the century, especially because Brazilian coffee found in the USA an excellent consumer market. The definitive change occurred in the first decade of the 20th century, when Barão do Rio Branco, Brazil’s foreign minister for 10 years (1902-1912) decided that the country should privilege relations with the US in its foreign policy. The Baron understood that after Africa and Asia, South America (especially the unprotected Amazon) would be the target of European imperialism. Without an army and a navy that could deal with Europeans, Brazil needed US protection.

Fortuitously, this was also the period in which Theodore Roosevelt gave his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt had already made clear his intention to keep Europeans away from the American continent, particularly in his intervention to build the Panama Canal. An unwritten alliance was formed between the two countries: the convergence of interests caused Brazil and the United States to experience an unprecedented approach in history. To consolidate the new paradigm of foreign policy the Baron elevated the Brazilian diplomatic representation in Washington to the level of embassy. In the diplomatic gesture of the time this was a clear indication of the preference that the country gave to the USA. The Baron chose Joaquim Nabuco to be Brazil’s first ambassador to Washington.

Nabuco is a well-known personage to the scholars of Brazilian history. When he became ambassador to Washington he was already famous for his struggle against slavery in Brazil and for his work as a historian. Like the Baron, Nabuco believed that Brazil would be the target of European imperialism, and that it needed US help to protect itself. Unlike the Baron, however, Nabuco saw an opportunity at the time to do something more: to turn America into a zone of peace, a continent with international relations essentially different from those of Europe.

The Baron saw international relations only as a zero-sum game. He also did diplomacy thinking in terms of a balance of power. Nabuco was not unaware of these aspects, but he believed that through regular international conferences and open trade, America could avoid the wars that were so characteristic of Europe. But for that the US leadership was essential, and should be supported by all. The Baron sought the US punctually: he wanted the protection of a stronger country while Brazil was not able to protect itself. Nabuco wanted a permanent alliance. In his foreign policy the Baron was a kind of conservative: changes do not occur easily. The story simply repeats itself. The 20th century would simply repeat the 19th. Nabuco believed that change is possible. He believed in universal principles linked to classical liberalism.

Nabuco passed away in 1910, only five years after assuming the position of ambassador. Perhaps if he had been more successful in his foreign policy we would have had a very different twentieth century. The United States would not have become involved in Europe, as it did in World War I. America would be a continent of peace, contrasting with the Old World. America would lead by example, not intervention. And many problems we face today, the fruits of American interventionism, would be avoided.

My review for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I just watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and I believe it is a very important movie to review if you are a lover of liberty in the classical liberal tradition. Before starting the review itself, I’d better say that I like the old Star Wars movies very much (episodes IV to VI), especially Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but other than that, my knowledge of the Star Wars universe is very limited. With that said, please be kind with me hardcore fans, and, of course, spoilers ahead!!! Continue reading

Does socialism need to be corrupt?

Brazil is going through a deep crisis right now. It is tempting to say that this is the greatest crisis in the country’s history, but I am quite afraid to make this comment. Unlike England and the United States, which have experienced significant institutional stability in the past 200 or 300 years, Brazil has gone through several political breakdowns in its history, and the current economic crisis is far from the hyperinflation of the 1980s. But there is a characteristic that links the present crisis to the previous ones: the presence of a tendentially authoritarian state.

Although Brazil was governed by an openly socialist party only between 2003 and 2016, this does not mean that socialist characteristics were not present in the country much earlier. One of the central theses of F.A. Hayek in the Road to Serfdom is that the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe (notably the Labor Party in England) had more features in common with the Nazis and fascists than they would have liked to admit. In other words, the differences between left (even a moderate left) and extreme right were illusory: they both had the fundamental characteristic of trying to plan society centrally.

The opposition between spontaneous order and central planning was one of the central theses in Hayek’s career. In Fatal Conceit he develops this theme a lot, showing how the opposition between central planning and lack of planning is a fallacy: society will forcibly be planned. The question is by whom: for a small group of people on behalf of all the others, or for a large group of individuals, each with limited responsibilities? According to Hayek, this distinction between central planning and individual planning is one of the central separations between an authoritarian society (left or right) and a truly free society.

It is difficult to say if the PT (“worker’s party”) government between 2003 and 2016 was the most corrupt in Brazilian history. Homesick people can always claim that corruption was also present in previous governments (it was just not investigated), and possibly they would be right. Before becoming a country ruled by a socialist party, Brazil has always been a patrimonialist country. And this is a fundamental point that adherents of socialism cannot understand: Brazil has never been a capitalist country, at least not in the sense that the liberal tradition employs.

Starting from Hayek, we conclude that central planning is impossible. Planners do not have the information they need to make their plans. As Mises taught, without private property there is no price formation, and without price formation the economic calculation is impossible. This opens space for what Hayek calls a fatal conceit: the assumption that it is possible to run a country from a central body, a presupposition that not only fails to achieve its goals, but also leaves piles of corpses on the way.

The PT government was probably the most corrupt in Brazilian history because it was what most rejected capitalism. The opposite of the free market is the attempt to centrally plan the economy. To centrally plan the economy, an army of administrators is needed. To watch over these administrators, a host of supervisors is needed, and so on. Corruption is inevitable.

Socialist governments are always among the most corrupt, and the reason is simple: the more government, the more corruption. A simpler, more decentralized government is not perfect. But it’s the best we can wish for. It would certainly be a government with less control over money, and thus less likely to steal.